'This Is What I'm Meant To Do': Neon Collector Will Durham

May 1, 2019

Persistence of vision. That’s what Will Durham, executive director of the Nevada Neon Project, calls it when he talks about seeing the Nevada Neon Project through years of setbacks and successes to achieve his ultimate goal to have a world-class museum in Reno. His goal is firm, as is his resolve and dedication to reach it.

He’s amassed an enormous collection of once-lively, iconic signs from across Nevada -- arguably one of the largest personal collections of neon today. It began with one acquisition he obtained as a college kid, looking to spruce up a huge rec room/bedroom combo in a house he shared with a friend. “The Swimmer” from the Zephyr Motel did the trick and also sparked an interest in Durham. It opened his eyes to the lights that he had not really noticed before, even as a native Nevadan.

These are just a handful of downed signs from the Reno area that now lay outside their current temporary home, the storage unit of Will Durham of the Nevada Neon Project.
Credit Holly Hutchings

“Well, I think with anything, once you open your eyes to something and become aware, then you really start noticing,” he said.

“During that time there was significant change in Reno and along Fourth Street. So I started becoming aware of all the other neon signs that were in danger, and I realized that there was the possibility of this being bigger than just preserving one cool neon sign. I started to realize that these are in danger of being lost. It made me sad and scared me a little bit. I thought, ‘These should really be preserved by someone.’ It’s always that 'they,' but then I realized that 'they' was me in this case.”

His awareness turned to activism and he went to work trying to grab signs from befallen buildings before the signage was trashed. At the time, Durham says nobody was preserving the signs, and neon appreciation was low. Now when a building goes away to make room for new developments, he tries to get the signs in the hopes of restoring them and displaying them, as he calls, "properly". He's spent over 20 years doing this work, saving signs from The Mapes, The Nevada Club, The King's Inn, The Peppermill, The Riviera in Las Vegas, The Brandin' Iron in Elko and many more.

As Reno loses more and more roadside motels, it's an active time for a sign preservationist. Durham says when it comes to the pace of demolitions, there is usually no average and no way to tell if it will be a busy season for him. There are times when nothing is coming down, and other times, a lot is happening. There’s no way to pace it. Often, he knows what’s scheduled for demolition and has been in talks with the business owner. He shows up at the demolition, ready with a truck. Sometimes, though, he’ll be reading the paper and be surprised to see that a building and sign have come down. At that point, the hunt is on to try to find what happened to it. If the sign is in Vegas or elsewhere outside Reno, he has to scramble to find it and arrange for pick up -- which translates to him jumping in a truck and taking a last-minute sign-salvage-road trip. What if he can’t pull it together in that short time frame?

“I’ve never lost a sign in that capacity,” he said. “I’ll figure out something. It’s never been so bad that I couldn’t figure out some sort of alternative. Generally, it works out. I haven’t had to choose yet.”

Will Durham brings The Bellman, from the now gone Park Motel, out of the storage unit that it rests in until it can be restored and brought back to its former glory.
Credit Holly Hutchings

It’s not just neon that he wants, although that is clearly where his heart is. He also collects memorabilia from bygone businesses and casinos, as well as signs that are lit in incandescent bulbs. His favorite is when a sign has a mixture of bulbs and neon.

He’s turned off by the title “collector” because the word connotes someone who may get a sign at auction or on eBay and is more passive. Durham is on the front lines, bleeding and getting dirty, taking down and preserving the signs. He’s never sold or traded a sign.

As a history lover, he’d prefer the signs to stay up, but if they must come down he wants the opportunity to give them an eventual second life in his dream museum showcase. He says these Nevada landmarks are worthy of it.

“The more that I’ve looked at them and been around them, I started to realize how historically significant they were. These signs represent properties and businesses that were real pioneers in Nevada, that really shape our state. They really are part of our cultural heritage and collective history. This is the backdrop for a lot of our lives. I also started to realize that they’re artistically significant too. There are so many different artists and craftsmen that contribute. This is a way to honor our history and also an industrial art that was taken to new heights in Nevada.”

Durham has made an appearance in a few of our Sparked stories. That’s hard to avoid when he is the primary voice when it comes to neon in the region; he’s the main preservationist, the teacher that led his elementary students to pass the neon bill, and the tour guide that walks curious lookie-loos around downtown Reno for a history lesson and flashing light eye-feast.

It’s easy to assume that someone that is so fully immersed in a passion like this could be consumed by it, but Durham tries to keep it in its proper place. This undertaking has taken significant amounts of his free time and money and made him pass up other opportunities.

In one of our interviews, I asked offhandedly if neon is his life, his face turned from content interviewee to almost an expression of hurt. “No. My daughter is my life,” he said. His eight-year-old Eleanor is on the team. She has joined him in lobbying with his students for the neon bill, and she was at his side when the governor signed the bill into law.

Executive Director of the Nevada Neon Project, Will Durham is joined by his daughter Eleanor for the signing of AB 182, the bill that designated neon as the state element, which Governor Steve Sisolak recently signed into law.
Credit Holly Hutchings

The sacrifices have stacked up over two decades, as have some victories. Durham's signs have been on display in Elko at the Western Folklife Center for twelve years, allowing up-close access in a rural environment. They've also been shown in the Reno 150th anniversary show at UNR and at the Instagrammys, a photography and video competition in Reno. The MONA, Museum of Neon Art in LA has displayed his signs, and, locally, in 2013 the Nevada Museum of Art ran a feature exhibit called The Light Circus which featured many of his restored, regional candy-colored lights. That experience gave Durham a taste of what his own vision could look like: An electric community hub wherein a resurrected, fun piece of Nevada history would be brought back to its opulent and luminous glory for the public to enjoy.

In the end, when -- not if -- the museum comes to fruition, he says he hopes it will reveal itself as a project that proves worthy of all the time and effort.

“This is something I feel like I have to do and I can’t not do it,” he said. “But what keeps me going and motivated and excited is the vision of what this will be like when it’s complete. A museum in Reno and what that could be as a cultural resource and community hub for Reno and what everyone can be proud of, that’s what keeps me pushing on this. I think a lot of people see the true potential, how this could be something that could really elevate downtown Reno and get tourists coming back again. And locals coming back downtown to have an activity they can be proud of. Not to say they don’t now, but downtown needs more cultural amenities. Thinking of what it will be like when it’s completed is really satisfying and that vision is really powerful.”

Plans for the museum are moving forward as the Nevada Neon Project is in the process of getting feasibility studies, doing renderings and scoping locations for the perfect spot. For more information, visit their Instagram or Facebook pages.